Filmmakers


Chris Marker avec Monsieur Chat
 

“I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

-         Sans Soleil (1983)

 

It is possible to build a case that a person called Chris Marker, who reportedly passed away two weeks ago in Paris, never existed; that the name is a mnemonic for an underground art collective, a projection of an auteurist film culture that tends to preserve the aura of a reclusive artist or a convenient label to denote audiovisual echoes from another world: a world of images, a world of appearances. Rarely photographed and even less frequently interviewed, Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, is something of an invisible man in the hallowed halls of world cinema. Generally associated with the Left Bank of the French New Wave, alongside high priests of cinematic modernism such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, Marker has been credited as a pioneer of the Film Essay – a free-form genre marked by a strong authorial voice in which cinema most resembles non-fiction writing. Although it is true that he has produced some of the most groundbreaking, most challenging and most riveting film essays to date, it would be gross injustice to pigeonhole an artist who has not only engaged with a range of documentary forms like cinema vérité, agitprop, film diary, artist profile, travelogue and the home movie, but also wandered across media – literature, photography, video games, interactive multimedia and cinema – to explore his chief metaphysical and political concerns: time and space, history and memory.

‘Wandering’ was what Marker truly did. With the curiosity of a child, the fascination of a foreigner and the detachment of a drifter, he hopped media in search of the most eloquent articulation of that which haunted him the most. Unlike some of his New Wave peers, cinema, for him, was never an end in itself, but yet another medium – as powerful and as insufficient as any other – that could directly deal with ideas close to his heart. His films are incomplete in the sense they are not predetermined theses disbursing answers, but intellectual terminals where trains of thought depart from. There is a sense of mystery and rediscovery that these films impart to everyday experience, as though prompting us to look at the world anew, that could have been conceived only by a bonafide outsider, a person who does not belong anywhere but everywhere. A perennial globetrotter, an aesthetic voyager and an escape artist par excellence, Marker, as it were, never belonged to a single place or time. Such an elusive yet enchanting perspective is what informs the central theme of his most renowned work: the science fiction short La Jetée (1962), the tragedy of a man simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time.

Part a playful tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), part a serious study about the nature of cinema, La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs. In the film, a man possessed by the image of a woman he saw in his childhood – now long dead – goes back in time to meet her, with full knowledge that he will lose her again. Marker’s spellbinding film literalizes the “double death” that haunts every photograph and which Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag would expound on decades later: the realization that a person in a photograph one is looking at is already dead and will be dead in some time after the photograph was taken, the dread that Eduardo Cadava called “memories of a mourning yet to come”. It realizes that the photographic image has neither a history nor a future and that it is the actuating force of cinema that provides it with both. The idea of such a malleability of memory and history – personal and collective – and an obsession with the enigmas of space and time motivates another of Marker’s hypnotic films: the sprawling, shape-shifting Sans Soleil (1983).

A masterwork of the free-associative essay form, Sans Soleil endlessly tosses one idea against another, examining the way we restructure personal and collective memory and construct our identity – as an individual and as a society. The film is riddled with questions relating to the differences in human experience that a geographical and temporal dislocation brings. Why is it that one is alive here and now? What if one was born in a different place or in a different time? In one way or other, these concerns have pervaded nearly his entire filmography starting from the extremely witty, self-reflexive film diary Letters from Siberia (1957). Through the decades, Marker has proven himself to be a relentless chronicler and examiner of the visual media that surround and shape us. His films have probed, in various forms and to various degrees, the deepest tissues that connect us subconsciously to the moving images of cinema. And it is only befitting that we thank him, in true Markerian spirit, for all his discoveries we are yet to make.

 

(Originally published in The Hindu)

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul
 

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

 

Writings

Interviews

— Mysskin’s cinema is physical. The fight scenes in his films occupy the extreme ends of a spectrum. They are either divided into the simplest of images – where the cause and effect of an action occupy different shots and we rarely see two bodies in interaction – or are presented in their entirely, prioritizing spatial continuity over fragmentation and highlighting corporeality of an action over its meaning. The frames are chopped; characters’ heads cut off. In his world of action, hands and feet are all that matter. (Severing body parts is not an unusual act in this universe). People don’t have time for patient phone calls. They keep running, falling and scuffling. So does the camera, which crouches when they crouch, which lurches when they lurch, which sits back when they sit and which trembles from afar when they do. Mysskin is impatient with two shots and his restless, gently swaying camera converts these expository moments into a survey of the set, a documentation of an ensemble performance.

— These films are tightly plotted, very convoluted affairs; their solution always at an arm’s length. Instead of the clutter clearing up, it keeps growing knottier and knottier until cutting through is the only way out. These resolutions, themselves, come across as cathartic experiences. Characters barely know the trajectories of others and how they interfere with their own. Like mice in a maze, they keep holding on to their version of truth until they get the view from above. It is this partial concealment/ignorance of information through which the movies attain tragic proportions. Mysskin’s men make grave choices and often the wrong one. They try to vindicate themselves, only to hurt themselves over and over and descend deeper into guilt that is predicated on an equivalence that recognizes one’s own condition in another. They suffer, and come out as better men. Their redemption is possible because they suffer. Mysskin’s pictures, likewise, are at their best when under generic constraints. Mysskin is at his most liberated when tethered.

— The men and women in these films find themselves in similar situations time and time again.  Despite all their actions and choices, they seem to come back to where they started from. It is of little surprise that much of the acting in these movies consists of repeated gestures and words. Be it pacing up and down a hall, where we see them oscillating about like a human pendulum, or fighting a gang of armed men, each of whom comes forward individually – like ascending notes in a motif – for a showdown, invoking comparison to both the martial arts and dance choreography. Likewise, we see them getting stuck in language loops – repeated words and phrases – until they attain a rhythm that reveals more than the words themselves do. This inclination for repetition informs Mysskin’s aesthetic as well, with some loopy, shrill, Bernard Herrmann-esque score (at least one of his lead men recalls Scottie Ferguson) and a number of repeating compositions.

— Mysskin is one of the few filmmakers in the country who can take melodrama head on without falling back. He is not a minimalist trying to sap out the excess from it, but a director working on a grand canvas, blowing up the form. Much like John Ford, with whom he shares an affinity for the sky and the heroes who adorn it, Mysskin uses music to enrich the gravity of a situation than substituting for it, to multiply emotions rather than adding them; instinctive rather than instructive, expressionistic rather than expressive. Mysskin earns his violins. At times, the deployment is incongruous (and prescient) with what we are seeing, but, in retrospect, is overwhelming. Like Ford, he has this uncanny ability to elevate commonplace gestures and glances to mythical levels. A Western by Mysskin wouldn’t really be a surprise, given how his own filmmaking instincts and themes derive from Westerns, by way of Samurai movies: codes of honor, responsibility towards one’s men.

— Although God is never quite absent from the films’ worlds, His silence becomes too threatening. There is a myriad of God’s eye compositions that seem to witness all sorts of activities with equanimity, without judgment. It is perhaps the worlds themselves that have fallen and it is probably up to the people who live in it to sort it all out. Mysskin’s camera that keeps descending from the sky onto the ground, then, signals a universe where man has to take up the responsibility of God, in His silence. This goes well along with Mysskin’s deep-rooted distrust of institutionalized justice and his muddled yet ultimately silly plea for vigilantism. (He is much more comfortable and intriguing when dealing with metaphysical ideas than sociopolitical particulars). The men in his films never seem to be able to fit into rigid establishments and find law and justice to be concepts often diverging from each other.

 

(Filmography: Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006), Anjathey (2008), Nandhalala (2010), Yuddham Sei (2011))

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul 
(1944-2011)

Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal. He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966. Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia. [Image & Bio Courtesy: Mubi]

 

I guess Mani Kaul could be called, with qualifications of course, the invisible man of Indian cinema. The home audience might find his films too ‘European’, too alien, and too cryptic, and might prefer instead the realist-humanist works of an artist like Ray. Foreign viewers, on the other hand, might complain that they are too culturally-rooted, too alien and too cryptic, and instead opt for a ‘universal’ filmmaker like Ray. Indeed, neither Kaul nor his pictures make any claim to ‘universality’. They are, undoubtedly, steeped in Indian classical art forms like how the Nouvelle Vague films were, with respect to the European classical tradition. Many of these films are adapted from literary works in Hindi, have a profound relationship with Hindustani music and exhibit an influence of representational forms from the country. In fact, his cinema, if not much else, is about these very forms, both in terms of subject matter and their construction. These films, to varying degrees, are literature (The Cloud Door), painting (Duvidha), architecture (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi), poetry (Siddheshwari) and music (Dhrupad). Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between functional forms of industrial age and decorative ones from Indian tradition, Kaul makes it, more or less, apparent that is he is interested in the possibilities of a form itself more than the question if it can convey a preconceived thesis. Like Godard, Kaul starts with the image and works his way into the text, if any.

Perhaps it is classical music, and specific strains of it, that exhibits strongest affinity with Kaul’s cinema. The director has mentioned that the trait that attracts him to it the most is that there are elements that just don’t fit into a system, notes that slip away and could find themselves elsewhere in the composition, Similarly, Kaul, admittedly, edits his films like composing music, moving a shot along the timeline, beyond logic, meaning or chronology, till it finds its right place, in terms of mood, rhythm or whatever parameter the director has in mind. (“And I know that when the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning”). He has, time and again, spoken elaborately on the systematization of fine art by European Renaissance and the need to find out alternate modes of expression free from its constraints. Convergence, be it in the perspective compositions of painting, the three-act structure of literature, or the climaxing of motifs in music, has always been an area of concern and investigation for him. (He admires Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) for its insistence on spending a quarter hour fretting about a pair of shoes, at the expense of plot). Consequently, fragmentation becomes the central organizing principle of his aesthetic. Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences, Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body. (Kaul’s sketches, in that sense, are direct antithesis to the portraits of Renaissance). Accordingly, because the face is tied to the notion of a unique identity, Kaul’s actors are stripped off all natural expression and behaviour and de-identified. Many of his shots are ‘flat’, without any depth cues or perspectival lines. (He traces this to ‘perspectiveless’ Mughal miniature paintings and cites Cézanne as another major influence). None of the characters are Enlightenment heroes having a firm hold on their world. The narratives are decentered and distributed across multiple perspectives.

This resistance to convergence principles of Renaissance has also led him to radically reformulate his relationship to the spaces he films. He believes that filmic and social spaces have been conventionally divided into ‘the sacred’ – the perfect realization of an ideal, carefully framed and chiseled, with all the undesired elements out – and ‘the profane’ – accidental intrusions, random fluctuations and irreligious interruptions; that the moment a filmmaker looks through the viewfinder, he ‘appropriates’ the hitherto ‘neutral’ space to compose based a set of principles, polishes it and turns it into a ‘sacred’ space. Kaul, on the other hand, has increasingly been resistant to ‘perfecting’ an image or space, instead treating space as something neutral and unclassifiable in itself and concentrating on the tone, feeling and emotion of a shot. (This is also what Godard does in his latest work, where spaces and images of all kind are given equal importance). In his later films, he has asked his cameraman not to look through the viewfinder while filming. (This does not mean that one shoots blindly. The director has elaborated in his writings on how this could be practically implemented. “What needs to be determined by the director and the cameraman is the act of making the shot: attention being that aspect of time that deeply colours the emergent feeling in a shot”). He has, admittedly, been open to intrusions and one can see stray elements, like cat mews appearing unexpectedly, in some of his shots. Likewise, none of his “stories” converge, or even have a linear progression, and, in fact, keep diffusing and opening up new possibilities.

 

[There are numerous features not covered in this post. The entries will be added if and when I see those missing films. All short films are omitted here.]

 

Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Uski RotiMade when he was 25, Mani Kaul’s first feature Uski Roti (1969) is what one might call a poetic film about waiting. Kaul takes a simple premise for the film – a woman who goes to the highway everyday to give lunch to her husband, whom she,  oddly enough, addresses using his full name – and strips it down to its skeleton, diverting our attention from what is represented to how it is represented. (Kaul likens this process to a painter emphasizing his brush strokes). Bresson’s influence is palpable in many aspects of filmmaking here: the delayed editing of shots that parenthesizes action, the de-dramatization of scenario, the atonal, unaccented line delivery by actors without forced expressions, the emphasis on objects rather than concepts, the numerous shots of hands and faces that have a grace of their own and, of course, the central, suffering woman. (There is even a direct homage to Pickpocket (1959)). Additionally, Kaul’s own training in short documentaries seems to have made its mark here, given how keen the film is on documenting purely physical activities such kneading dough, which becomes the central gesture. (This would be elaborated upon in the short A Historical Sketch Of Indian Women (1975)). Utilizing plethora of Ghatak-influenced wide angle shots, in high-contrast monochrome (if only the film had used European film stock, Pedro Costa would applaud), a hyperreal sound mix and a highly idiosyncratic grammar (horizontal asymmetry, characters facing away from camera, no reaction shots), Kaul makes an arresting if not totally underivative debut.

Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973)

DuvidhaKaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) opens with a rather flat, Godardian image of a woman in a red saree standing in front of a white wall, staring determinedly into the camera, as high-pitched Rajasthani ethnic vocals grace the audio. Like the frozen image of Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent, it suggests a predicament addressed to the audience. Based a folk tale, Duvidha speaks of a love that is beyond time and space. The presence of the ghost, which falls in love with the new bride, is not an exotic delicacy served to us but a given. And so is the ‘story’, which is read out verbatim to us by the narrator, freeing the film from the burden of storytelling, so to speak, instead allowing it to experiment with the imagery. Employing a number of photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts and replays, which illustrate the film’s central notion of temporal and geographical dislocation (and save on the budget) and manipulating time like an accordion player, Kaul weaves a narrative where the past, the present and the future are always in conversation. (The ghost is simply referred to as ‘Bhoot’ (ghost), which is, of course, the word for ‘past’ as well). The predicament of the title, then, involves a choice between the spiritual and the material, the bride’s past and future, her childhood and adulthood, her freedom and honour and her love and security. Bewitchingly shot like a Dovzhenko film (and composed like Cézanne‘s still lifes), and impressively designed, with a simple yet striking interplay of red and white, Duvidha builds on both Kaul’s feminist leanings and highly personalized aesthetic.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface, 1980)

Satah Se Uthata AadmiSatah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides. This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film. Based on the deeply personal texts of Gajanan Mukthibodh, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi presents a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing is certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to a sellout of oneself. (Like Godard-Truffaut, Ghatak-Ray, does Kaul have anyone in mind?). This fragmented, post-socialist state of society that the film depicts – through its vignettes of urban Indian individuals – is reflected in the Malick-like disunited voiceover which spans three characters and which conversely, unites the narrative together. A remarkably sustained tone poem, with brooding surreal passages (including a hypnotic documentary sequence inside a factory and an unabashedly allegorical finale) and minor experiments (sections from Muktibodh’s texts displayed on screen), reminiscent of Godard’s work of the 90s, rife with strong verticals and perspective compositions (which is odd, given Kaul’s resistance to it), Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is both Kaul’s most stringent and most affecting work.

Dhrupad (1982)

DhrupadDhrupad (1982) finds Kaul studying the eponymous classical music form, specifically the Dagarvani variation of it practiced by the Dagar family, with whom the director has close associations with. Apparently, the music the film examines is one without any form of notation since, reportedly, many of the tones don’t fit into existing notational systems and the transmission of tradition is done purely orally. (The vocal performances that we hear exhibit such malleability of human voice that one is convinced that no instrument can aspire to emulate its timbre). This trait of not conforming to the systematized models of Renaissance is of special interest to Kaul, who has long been aware of the need to discover non-reductive, discursive modes of expression. Likewise, Dhrupad, like many of the director’s pictures, eludes categorization or compartmentalization. Part historical study, part religious documentation of performances, part experiment with cinematic time (the sublime shot that spans a sunrise invokes contemporary ‘landscape filmmakers’ like Benning) and part exercise in thematically conglomerating classical Indian art forms – music, sculpture, architecture, painting and cinema – the self-referential film gives a vivid picture of what makes Dhrupad so striking, with its numerous mise en abymes and fractals. Like in the films of Resnais, with whom Kaul shares an affinity for ‘fragmentation’, the camera glides through the Mughal style corridors and courtyards, in which the veteran artistes of the Dagar family perform and teach – while the soundtrack takes off on its own – evoking a sense of history that is living and breathing.

Mati Manas (The Mind Of Clay, 1985)

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

Siddheshwari (1989)

SiddheshwariWith Siddheshwari (1989), Kaul turns the typical artist-profile film (produced by Films Division) on its head. Not only does it eschew straightforward documentation of the titular singer’s artistry, but it almost completely does away with basic biographical details to arrive at something more exhilarating and revelatory. Instead of presenting music, the film presents the idea and experience of music. A bona fide avant-garde feature that amalgamates multiple timelines, geographies, realities and narrative modes, Siddheshwari brings together various art forms like literature (the chapterized film opens with a table of contents!), music (shifts in ragas, reflected in the filmmaking with hue and rhythm changes) and theatre (both in its production design and its emphasis on role-playing throughout). The camera is perpetually moving – dollies and cranes galore – as if reading an ancient scroll and acts like a force of time that moves Siddheshwari Devi through landscapes and times. The soundtrack, similarly, is a dense network of speech, whispers, vocal and instrumental music ad recited poetry. Siddheswari Devi is portrayed by a number of women, including some who enact her biography, some who depict her sensorial experiences and Devi herself. (This is only one of the reasons I’m reminded of Hou’s The Puppetmaster (1994)). One of them is Mita Vasisht, whom we see at an archive, at the end, watching tapes of Devi singing, possibly to prepare herself for the role. Like The Taste of Cherry (1997), fiction and reality bid adieu, with Kaul restoring things back to their original places, as though returning what he borrowed to create his greatest work.

Nazar (The Gaze, 1989)

NazarAdapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, Nazar (1989) bears natural resemblance to Robert Bresson’s shining adaptation of the same, A Gentle Creature (1969) in its characteristically stylized direction of actors and the sacrificing drama for rhythm, mood and an intensity of observation. Kaul replaces the generally bright interiors of Bresson’s version of the couple’s high-rise housing, which cordons them off from the rest of the world and which is emphasized continuously in the film, with a low-lit (barely any artificial light) semi-dungeon marked dominated by black-blue and brown shades, suggestive of the moral malaise that marks both the psyche of the male character and the space the pair lives in. The ever-wandering camera hovers over characters who appear to be stationed in space – with barely any movement – as if frozen in time. Kaul’s ultra-minimal chamber drama, too, starts off with the suicide of a woman (Kaul’s daughter Shambhavi, an avant-garde filmmaker herself), although it is only alluded to by her husband (noted director Shekhar Kapur), who tries to recollect to us what might have moved her to commit this act. Kapur’s stream-of-consciousness delivery of lines is exceptionally fragmented, as if he’s trying to wrestle information from deep recesses of ‘actual and ’‘convenient’ memories. This narrative within the narrative is the man’s way of vindicating himself; of blinding himself to the fact that ‘ownership’ is what that mattered to him all along and that he is, like the antiques that he sells, a man stuck in time.

Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999)

Naukar Ki KameezNaukar Ki Kameez (1999), as it appears, is a ‘conventional’ narrative film, by the director’s standards, with that generally-revered ‘naturalistic’ acting and speech, its relatively generous use of musical score and a general willingness to present a string of events, if not a plot. However, it is also one of Kaul’s most experimental features (Kaul couldn’t ideally be classified as an experimental filmmaker) and employs a fragmented narrative structure (which keeps spreading out to new directions) with constant chronological jumps back and forth, an absurd, magic realist tone (which reveals a tenderness towards his characters and his geography) and a potpourri of filmmaking modes (including canned laughter of sitcoms and internal monologues of low-end TV dramas). Set at the fag end of the 60s, Naukar Ki Kameez, which centers on a lower-middle class clerk, Santu, in a government office, and his wife, for most part, is a simple metaphorical tale of upward class mobility and its psychological and social impediments. Santu is a bundle of contradictions; he is conscious of class divisions and the need for revolution and yet harbours hope for social-climbing, he recognizes the need to respect the other, yet casually oppresses his wife, whom he genuinely loves as well. Like Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), it gives us a nation with an identity crisis: one caught between extreme Westernization and dreams of a revolution – between tradition and modernity – posing a question to itself: To wear or to tear?

Een Aaps Regenjas (A Monkey’s Raincoat, 2005)

A Monkey's RaincoatMore fascinating than the fact that A Monkey’s Raincoat (2005) revitalizes the age-old question of purpose of art and its relationship to the real world is that low-end handheld DV, which the film is shot on, helps put nearly all of Kaul’s theoretical principles and inclinations into practice: the idea of not looking through the viewfinder while shooting, the rejection of the dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” spaces, the notion of camera as an extension of one’s body and movement and a deep-seated interest in the experience of filming over filming itself. Adopting a loose, instinctive and continuous mode of shooting, Kaul inquisitively records an assortment of young painters at work at two places – Biennale, Venice and at their residency in Amsterdam, Netherlands – often interacting with them as he works. We see that Amsterdam is something of a dream destination for budding artists, a melting pot of cultures, where they can at least hope to find an audience. Though never taking potshots at art or its reception, Kaul’s film gently mocks an art scene where artists seem to be fond of ‘playing’ artists, with a set of personalized eccentricities and self-imposed clichés. As he samples their creations, he wonders in the voiceover if there is any purpose to art at all, given that it has been able to solve not one of the world’s problems. Kaul realizes that the question is moot and questions if art for humans is what a raincoat if for monkey: it might not stop the rain but at least it helps you to recognize it and shield yourself from it.

Girish Kasaravalli

Girish Kasaravalli 
(1950-)

Girish Kasaravalli was born in Kesalur, a village in the Tirthahalli taluk in Shimoga district in 1950 to Ganesh Rao and Lakshmi Devi. He had his primary education in Kesalur and middle school education in Kammaradi. Hailing from a family of book lovers, he was initiated to reading good books from a young age by his father. His father was also a patron of Yakshagana, a folk system of dance, native to Karnataka. All this formed a basis for a life rich with creative aspirations. He was also attracted to the touring talkies which visited his village once in a while to screen popular Kannada films. This was his first exposure to the world of Cinema. Another relative who supported his love for creative arts was his maternal uncle K.V.Subbanna, a Magsaysay award winner who founded Neenasam, a critically acclaimed and popular drama company. After completing his high school and college education in Shimoga, he enrolled for the B.Pharma course in the College of Pharmacy, Manipal. The college was a commonplace for many cultural activities and kept Girish Kasaravalli’s creative interests alive. After completing his degree, he went to Hyderabad for training. But due to his pre occupations in Cinema and art, he found it difficult to manage his profession and interest together. He decided to quit the career in Pharmacy and join the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. A gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Girish Kasaravalli started his career in films with Ghatashraddha (1977), over the next 30 years he directed eleven films and a tele serial.The Film he made to fulfill his Diploma “AVASHESH” was awarded the Best Student Film. Avashesh also won the President’s Silver Lotus award for the Best Short Film of that year [Bio Courtesy: Wikipedia, Image Courtesy: ProKerala]

 

Girish Kasaravalli’s films are full of rituals, ceremonies, legitimization games, legal procedures and codes of communication and social conduct. These narratives are all structured around notions of inclusion and exclusion, of inclusiveness and exclusivity. They are all about who is in a particular game and who is not. Even though Kasaravalli’s films are about rituals, the films, themselves, are never rituals. Part of what makes Kasaravalli’s cinema so rich is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, the director hasn’t allowed his world view to stagnate, his concerns to become characteristic or his explorations to become answers. Even though they have been present in one form or another throughout his filmography, the key question that Kasaravalli’s films have put emphasis on has moved from that of socio-religious institutions and their laws, through that of authorization of those laws by those whom it applies to, to that of justice and its many conflicting definitions that seek to pin down its meaning, all the while having at their focal points the effects that these questions have on the social standing of women. Let’s make no mistake; his films – like many works of ‘Parallel Cinema’ – have always been about with the status of women in a conservative setup. What sets these films apart is, however, the fact that they choose to venture beyond the miserablism that the scenario offers (and which many filmmakers wallow in) and probe what makes a setup conservative in the first place. For every mention of Kasaravalli the humanist, there is Kasaravalli the analyst beneath, for every instance of Kasaravalli the metaphysician, there is Kasaravalli the sociologist operating alongside and for every cry of Kasaravalli the universal, there’s Kasaravalli the native working on historicized junctures.

Despite sharing a woman-behind-bars aesthetic highly typical of Parallel Cinema – locale shooting with an affinity for the horizon and landscapes at dawn and dusk, low-light static compositions (often through doorways) and continuity editing that indicate a respect towards the written word, pans and tilts that unveil details gradually, an inclination towards restrained low-key classical score (by his regular, the highly talented Isaac Thomas Kottukapally) and naturalist sound design complementing re-recorded speech – there are a few directorial choices – the scroll-like horizontal tracking shots that are present right from his experimental, Tarkovsky-esque diploma film Avasesh (1975), the temporalizing intertitles and the major ellipses that bypass drama – which have revealed themselves as stark deviations from the movement’s aesthetic. There are as many shots of freewheeling corporeality in Kasaravalli’s films as there are modernist shots carrying the burden of meaning, as many moments that rebel against the narrative as there are moments that are at its service. And that is indeed a rare sight to see in Parallel Cinema.

 

[The usual caveat: Lots of films missing here. Notes will be added once I see them]

 
Ghatashraddha (The Ritual, 1979)

GhatashraddhaThe director’s debut feature, The Ritual, couldn’t have more aptly titled given that every subsequent Kasaravalli film could be named the same. Set in a Brahmin (priest class) settlement where sacred hymns are taught by male teachers and learnt by rote by male children, Ghatashraddha delves into a system of social legitimation that is built on suppressing differences, deviances and dissent. (Having a homosexual teenager in the school is provocative even today). Kasaravalli portrays these rituals – religious and social – in high detail that they seem to almost possess a power beyond the people who perform them. The act of teaching and reciting these very hymns (some of which are specifically written for men) proves to be an authorization procedure for the perpetuation of patriarchy and of maintaining a closed circle of legislative and judicial power. Both the young kid Nani (Ajith Kumar), who isn’t able to learn these chants, and the young woman Yamuna (the beautiful Meena Kuttappa), who gets pregnant out of wedlock, are deemed outcasts. Ghatashraddha pays out like a tragedy in which every attempt to break out of a rigid system of rules is put down and all discursive entities that could undermine the integrity of the system are absorbed into the mainstream. Kasaravalli uses his actors remarkably – almost in a Bressonian manner – pruning down superfluous elements of performance and expression and reducing the tragic presence of Yamuna to an aggregate of glances and stares, and his command on his images is equally noteworthy, with sharp, beautiful monochrome photography.

Mane (House, 1991)

ManePossibly the most unusual Kasaravalli picture and certainly my favorite by the director, Mane (also dubbed in Hindi as Ek Ghar) is a Kafkaesque tale about a young couple (Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval) that moves to the city from a village with the hope of finding privacy and freedom, which are unavailable in the joint family system. For all its narrative excursions, in a sense, Mane is merely about the breakup of a marriage in which the Rossellinian couple, unable to confront each other directly amidst the loneliness of the city, externalizes their troubles – his powerlessness, her desire for freedom and their childlessness – and shifts blame on situations beyond their control in order to act victims. Kasaravalli works wonder with film and sound here, using them to denote the impending break down. (One stunning shot uses the neon lights of the neighbourhood to literally break apart the frame). A critique on urban spaces that suffocate more than they promise privacy, Mane unfolds like a sociological update on Rear Window (1954), in which personal anxieties and fears are displaced onto the surroundings and, specifically, onto a lower social class. In that sense, Mane connects all the way to the director’s latest work in the manner in which it raises questions about the visibility of the class structure and the seeming imperceptibility of the consequences of acts of one class on the other. Mane is full of such encroachments of freedom by other competing notions of freedom – between classes, between houses and between spouses.

Thai Saheba (1997)

Thayi SahebaThai Saheba, I think, is best understood as a transitional film because it is in this film that Kasaravalli tries to streamline most of the diverging concerns of his previous features into a sustained reflection on justice – a topic that he would keep refining in his subsequent three works. Shot mostly indoors with the production design dominated by deep red and brown colours, the film is reminiscent of similarly-themed films of the same decade by Hou and Zhang, especially in the way the women orbit the largely unseen patriarch of the house and how the personal becomes inseperably entagled with the political. Kasaravalli, interestingly, sets his story in pre-independence India in an attempt, however unsure, to make a positive intervention into history and open it up for analysis. More precisely, the period is the 1940s when the independence struggle against the British Empire was at its peak. The leader of the house is a Gandhian fighting earnestly for independence while he keeps ignoring his wife (one among three!), who finds companionship in her adopted son, who, in turn, falls in love with his step sister. The film is rife with such complex familial relationships and forbidding codes of conduct, through which questions regarding inheritance and birth right are broached. (There’s a narrative thread regarding perfumes that Kasaravalli uses as shorthand for feudal legacy). Like the previous picture, Thai Saheba keeps pitting one idea of freedom and justice with other. However, there’s also the feeling that the film might be treating history as a closed book, suggesting that we are living at more liberal times. The corrective would arrive three films later.

Dweepa (The Island, 2003)

DweepaDweepa is a quantum leap of sorts for Kasaravalli. For one, the scenario takes a gigantic jump from pre-independence India to post-globalization India (the jump is highly ironic since the politico-historic situation doesn’t differ as much as one expects it to): to a time when huge construction projects are undertaken at the cost of the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people. Possibly the most keenly observed of all the director’s films, Dweepa finds Kasaravalli shifting his focus from institutions and their laws towards the legitimization of those very laws, to the many internal contradictions a statement of justice has to suppress to create a stable meaning. The film almost plays out reverse-dialectically – like a chain of nuclear fissions – breaking down one stable narrative of justice into smaller narratives each counterpointing the other. The island of the title, then, not only refers to the geography of the story or to the situation that the priest family – father, son and daughter-in-law and the young outsider – finds itself in, but also to this impossibility of consensus and to the narratives of minorities being abandoned in favour of those of existing technocratic and paternal institutions. (The story’s development, in a way, parallels the trajectory of critical discourses in the past few decades, in the undermining of totalizing theories by identity groups). Kasaravalli can’t propose a solution (is there one?), but the response he suggests – of perpetual resistance – is borne out of a deep respect for his subjects.

Haseena (2004)

HaseenaHaseena begins with a bruised, middle-aged woman (Tara) sitting determinedly in front of a mosque before cutting – painfully – to an older, beautiful version of her. Haseena has all the trappings of a “woman’s picture” – a poor lower-class woman, with many kids and a abusive, drunkard husband who beats her up, struggling to make a living in a man’s world – and, to an extent, it is. But instead of converting the scenario into a woe-of-the-week saga and wallowing in self-pity and condescension that almost seems to be the natural reaction from many filmmakers, Kasaravalli, respecting the dignity of himself and his subject, moves beyond superficial humanism to embark on an examination of the law, justice and the crossroads between them. That the story is set in an Islamic community, where laws and rules are more localized and, hence, the idea of justice could be more accommodative, helps illustrate the dynamics of legislation and legitimization with higher transparency. Absorbing a number of uncharacteristic directorial choices, strangely enough, from contemporary Iranian cinema, where too characters retain their self-esteem, specifically in its use of colour and music (Kottukapally’s high-scale stringed compositions, well, strike a chord for those familiar with Majidi’s cinema, for instance) and it’s magic realist finale, Kasaravalli experiments with his new found freedom of form and the confidence of approach that the previous, seminal feature seems to have fortified.

Naayi Neralu (In The Shadow Of The Dog, 2006)

Naayi NeraluNaayi Neralu is the exact kind of movie that Kasaravalli’s filmography was working towards all along. Like Thayi Saheba, this one is also set in a pre-independence era, but instead of treating issues from at a distance and institutions monolithically, Kasaravalli treats them like how a present-day sociologist would talk about present-day problems. Kasaravalli’s intervention into history exemplifies postmodernism as a responsible critical approach (and not as “anything goes” complacency that the term has become a mnemonic for) in the way it keeps revealing the individual not as a rational, integral consciousness trapped inside institutions and their oppressive rules but as a de-centered subject sitting at the intersection of multiple Symbolic orders with much more authority than a modernist illustration would allow for. The complex script (many share writing credits) first establishes, like Ghatashraddha, a widow Venku (Pavitra Lokesh) in a fixed, conservative milieu before introducing a disturbance into the system in the form of a young man who claims to be her husband, reincarnated. The society in question authorizes the intrusion and this, ironically, promises escape for Venku, who crosses over into the new legal contour. After certain unforeseen incidents, the society realizes the radicalism of its own decision and revokes back the patent, leaving Venku outside all social circles. An incisive portrait of law as a sum of countersigning gestures and justice as something more individualized, like a signature, Naayi Neralu presents Kasaravalli’s social study at its most refined.

Gulabi Talkies (2008)

Gulabi TalkiesSet in a coastal town in Karnataka where fishing is the major source of livelihood and at a time when the country was engaged in the Kargil war, Gulabi Talkies, along with the next film, marks another major transitional period – if not a minor fall from the precision of Naayi Neralu, which I think is the case – for Kasaravalli. If, in the previous pictures, the director and the writers attempted to look at the bigger picture – at the narrative that confronts and governs other narratives –they suggest here that one might not be able to get a bigger picture at all. There are a hundred things that are going on in Gulabi Talkies that attempt to tear the film’s focus apart. The first of two major threads involves a movie-loving middle-aged Muslim midwife (Umashree) who is gifted a television set with satellite connection and the second one deals with a group of Visconti-like fishermen who are enraged by the government’s decision to grant permission to a local Muslim bigwig to fish in the same zone as them. Gulabi Talkies investigates how international events and decisions trickle down – step by step – into every day life and acquire a completely different flavour that conceals knowledge of the actuating force. The war against Pakistan (itself a consequence) translates to communal violence within the country, which translates to gang wars among fishermen and which, in turn, bear upon Gulabi’s status as the cynosure of the local housewives. Perhaps, this is why the film’s most telling image is that of a satellite dish on the beach facing the sea: Images from a world beyond having catastrophic effects elsewhere.

Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (Riding The Stallion Of A Dream, 2010)

Kanasembo KudureyaneriKanasembo Kudureyaneri begins quite flashily, as though advertising its own script, with the quip by Godard that a film needn’t have a beginning, middle and an end in the same order. But then, instead of using the hyperlink structure of the script to pull off one emotional coup after another, Kasaravalli and co. use it to emphasize the invisibility of one part of the script to another. The two branches of the narrative – each of which deals with one particular socioeconomic class – are interconnected by a specific event: the death of the village patriarch, which also fulfils its symbolic purpose, but none of the characters that constitute these classes recognizes this. All of them work towards their own individual dreams and aspirations without realizing that this quest of theirs’ shapes and is shaped by the others’ as well. The setting of the story is contemporary no doubt, but there is scarcely anything contemporary about it. It might be true that the remains of feudalism still plague the country’s rural regions, but given that the economic system that drives this problem even today has flourished upon the idea of death of feudalism and even promotes itself at the cost of feudalism, Kanasembo Kudureyaneri comes across as a slightly anachronistic (and assimilable-into-mainstream) film. Having said that, I must also add that the film brings Kasaravalli’s filmography to a very interesting point where, with the support of the finesse of perspective and approach that previous few films have worked towards, he can plunge into more globalized, potentially uncomfortable issues with a more refined and rigorous control over his craft. I think the next one will be mighty interesting.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

 


[This post is my final contribution to Sheila O'Malley's Iranian Film Blogathon which concludes today. It has been an astonishing week, with dozens of insightful and informative articles and comments from across the blogosphere. A truly remarkable effort, Sheila. I hope your marvelous work paves way for lots more discussions on Iranian cinema, which, along with Chinese cinema, pretty much owned the last two decades. Cheers.]

 

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan 
(1950-)

Anand Patwardhan has been making political documentaries for nearly three decades pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Patwardhan who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court. Patwardhan received a B.A. in English Literature from Bombay University in 1970, won a scholarship to get another B.A. in Sociology from Brandeis University in 1972 and earned a Master’s degree in Communications from McGill University in 1982. Patwardhan has been an activist ever since he was a student — having participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement; being a volunteer in Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Worker’s Union; working in Kishore Bharati, a rural development and education project in central India; and participating in the Bihar anti-corruption movement in 1974-75 and in the civil liberties and democratic rights movement during and after the 1975-77 Emergency. Since then he has been active in movements for housing rights of the urban poor, for communal harmony and participated in movements against unjust, unsustainable development, miltarism and nuclear nationalism. [Image Courtesy: Icarus Films, Bio Courtesy: Official Site]

The most acclaimed Indian documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan has been called the Michael Moore of India, although the latter started his career much later than Patwardhan did. The comparison is not entirely unwarranted though. For one, Patwardhan’s political inclination is very similar to that of the Canadian-American. He even admires Moore’s works to a large extent. But of more interest is the commonality between their styles. Like in the films of Moore, the image and the sound counterpoint each other at the most critical junctures. But, unlike in Moore where it’s almost exclusively played out for laughs, this friction is also used to provide highly affecting social ironies or even serve as penetrating summations. Same is true of the dialectical imagery – arrived at though Eisensteinian cutting or, more frequently, within the same shot – in his films. This might sound too crude and simplistic, but Patwardhan’s curious, clear-sighted camera and editing never once call attention to themselves or invite us to marvel their artistry. It is almost as if the sound and the image have independent existence since each of them has its own emotional weight and rumination quotient. At times, the image and sound are linked together by folk (generally recorded directly) or pop songs (official versions), which serve as catharsis for the pent up resentment and tension. Moreover, these folk songs also help illustrate how a community uses its art forms to make a record of its problems and struggles and to develop a sense of clanship among its members to help them go on.

Another singular aspect of Patwardhan’s cinema is his attention to dialects, language and speech patterns. Although there must have been considerable amount of luck in making many of these observations, the amazing consistency with which these nuggets steal the speeches they appear in makes this an ostensible trademark of the director.  A chief nuclear scientist believes, albeit with a modicum of humour, that the numerous berserk cows did not spoil the nuclear test because they are sacred. A well-off, educated urban businessman, who has, along with his wife, resorted to religious methods for having a child, tells us (among other atrocities) that Hinduism is extremely liberal and broad minded in comparison to Islam and that “women cannot be divorced very easily”. An atheist (or secular) speaker of the Left uses the term “Lakshman Rekha” to denote the poverty line. This scrupulous attention to representation extends also to the visual language. Mass media, especially mainstream cinema and popular television (shows and news – rather interchangeable really), make regular appearances in Patwardhan’s films and are used to highlight their regressive influence. Although the working methods that he has developed over time bear an unmistakable authorial stamp (save for two rather ordinary short films), Patwardhan claims that he does not believe in deliberate stylization and that there is no conscious aesthetic in his films. In fact, the only cinematic influence that he mentions in interviews is that of Imperfect Cinema (Patwardhan’s films are certainly works of Third Cinema and his essay on The Battle of Chile (1977) is an illuminating read). So it should of little doubt that his politics is what informs his aesthetics.

In a way, Anand Patwardhan could be called the child of Karl Marx and Karamchand Gandhi. If there is one vein that runs throughout Patwardhan’s filmography, it is the attempt to suitably wed class consciousness with nonviolent methods of problem solving. In that respect, all his films could be seen as efforts to demonstrate that this marriage is not just chimerical utopianism, but a practical possibility. He has been criticized for taking sides, for not presenting facts with objectivity and, plainly, for not giving the ‘other’ side a fair hearing. Surely, there can be few qualities more repulsive than non-committedness, neutrality and pseudo-objectivity in a political documentary for you can’t be neutral on a moving train. But then that doesn’t mean films such as Patwardhan’s are propagandistic or, worse, merely personal preferences, worldviews and opinions. His filmmaking is defined by curiosity and compassion rather than didacticism and judgment. Patwardhan’s allegiance is not to any geography, religion, ideology, language or class, but only to humanitarianism (for the lack of a better term), although, ironically, that stance dictates much of his politics. Through the films, it becomes evident that it is not an hatred towards the ruling class, but a genuine concern for the underprivileged that characterizes his cinema.  Witness to this attitude is the fact his central interest remains – and this has given birth to the best sections he’s ever done – in the struggles of the oppressed than the acts of the powerful. All his films, in one way or the other, are celebrations of (or pleas for) nonviolent forms of resistance. (He places Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, B. R. Ambedkar and Salvador Allende on the same pedestal.) It is as if, for him, the struggle itself is more important than the end result. These films testify to the filmmaker’s belief that a struggle for human rights need not necessarily entail dehumanization of oneself, that, to borrow Gandhi’s oft-used quote, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

 
(NOTE: As usual, there are gaping holes here which will be filled once I see those missing films)

Zameer Ke Bandi (Prisoners Of Conscience, 1978)

 

Prisoners of ConscienceShot on grainy 16mm stock that embodies the spirit and theory of Imperfect Cinema that Patwardhan so cherishes, Prisoners of Conscience (1978) captures a particular facet of the tumultuous years following the declaration of emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June, 1975: political imprisonment. Through first hand accounts, the director presents details of the appalling brutality of prison procedures and the classism that permeates them. Patwardhan’s major lament is not against Indira’s policies per se, but the very act of holding political prisoners without trial (That the film clearly points out that the situation did not improve much even after Janata Dal came to power testifies to its “nonpartisan” quality). What was unique about the widespread resistance to this political ploy of Indira Gandhi was that it was highly democratic in nature, with participation by both the secular Left and the Hindu-based RSS (a marriage quite unimaginable now), both workers and students, both citizens and immigrants and both radical Maoists and nonviolent Gandhians. Using the various interviews of people from each of these groups, Patwardhan attempts to examine and evaluate his own political leaning by trying to uncover socialist strains in Gandhian philosophy and the possibility of having a nonviolent base for Marxist thought. In additional to his ideology, it is also Patwardhan’s directorial style that seems to have (more or less) found its bearings in Prisoners as is evident in the therapeutic use of folk songs, the ironic cross cutting between Republic Day celebrations and prison proceedings and the general hesitation to be overly acerbic or coldly academic.

Hamara Shahar (Bombay, Our City, 1985)

Bombay, Our CityBombay, Our City (1985) is a devastating account of the slum clearance operations of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1984, in which encroachments by rural immigrants were systematically removed to make way for skyscrapers and to prettify the city. Patwardhan interviews residents of the slums, industrialists in the city, officials at the municipality office and middle class citizens of the city, all of whose words provide a unique insight into the issue. Occasionally, the film falls prey to an unrefined Marxist impulse wherein the director includes images of bourgeois tea parties and yacht races for no reason other than to provide contrast. But then, this sudden shift of gears also seems justified when we witness a group of upper-class folks – the city’s police commissioner included – discussing how to fight this “evil” of encroachments through martial training of youths. What is really extraordinary about the segments involving the slum residents is how remarkably aware these people are of their surroundings and of the numerous forces that bind them. A terrific song compiled by the local theatre group, which forms the spiritual backbone of the film, details the government’s injustices with great humour and pathos. Equally piercing are the testaments of the evicted (One of them says “Instead of removing poverty, they’re removing the poor”, alluding to Indira (and Rajiv) Gandhi’s populist slogan for eradicating poverty). Finally, Bombay, Our City also presents Patwardhan finding his own place as a filmmaker and an activist. One of the slum dwellers accuses Patwardhan of exploiting their misery for artistic gains while the Right accuses him of romanticizing the working class. The director, however, remains the humble inquisitor.

Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari (In Memory Of Friends, 1990)

In Memory of FriendsIn Memory of Friends (1990) finds Patwardhan in Punjab covering communal clashes between Sikh and Hindu fundamentalists during the Khalistan Movement and the subsequent endeavours of secular parties with Marxist associations in reinstating peace in the state. The subject of In Memory is both philosophically and politically complex (primarily due to different parties holding power at the state and central levels), for the demand for a separate state based on religion is, as Patwardhan remarks, both purely democratic and against democracy. At the focal point of the film is the figure of Bhagat Singh, freedom fighter and revolutionary whose image has been appropriated and manipulated by each political group to suit to its own ideological agenda. The Sikh separatists claim Bhagat Singh was a religious man whereas the right wing extols his nationalism. Even those who remain neutral about him seem to consider him as some sort of an antithesis to the nonviolent Gandhi. This starling rupture between the past and the present – the reality and its image – informs the central structuring device of In Memory. Interleaved with footage of interviews with the secularists, the separatists and the relatives of Bhagat Singh are passages in which Bhagat Singh’s posthumously published jail writings are recited by a narrator (Naseeruddin Shah) which clearly indicate that he was not only a staunch socialist and an atheist who believed that widespread class consciousness was the only way out of communal wars, but also that he deeply admired non-violence. Like all the secular teachings of Sikhism, Bhagat Singh’s beliefs, too, seem to have vanished into the past.

Ram Ke Naam (In The Name Of God, 1992)

In The Name Of GodIn the Name of God (1992) chronicles the immediate and historical events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on 6 December 1992, when thousands of Hindu fundamentalists barged into the mosque premises and started bringing down the structure. Characteristically witty with a very keen eye for tragicomic ironies (The camera casually photographs an eatery named “Shriram Fast Food” as we hear public speakers, mounted on hired trucks, advertising the divinity of Lord Ram), Patwardhan examines the classism that exists within these communal forces (in the form of castes) and charts both the strategies of the then-oppositional Hindu groups, one of whose leaders had undertaken a nationwide propagandist tour, and the efforts of the secular Left in mitigating the communal agitation that seemed to have gripped the country like a plague. Unlike most rationalists, he chooses to view religion not as an entity fascist in its very conception, but as one which is molded by the ideology that propagates it. This is reinforced by the numerous segments featuring with Pujari Laldas, the official priest at the temple inside the mosque premise and a Hindu liberation theologian, the honesty and conviction of whose words suffuse the film with an earnestness and compassion so crucial to sociological filmmaking. But perhaps more than anything, In the Name of God is an elegy for the city of Ayodhya – a city caught unawares by external polarizing forces, its identity erased and reconstituted and its people made to live in perpetual fear.

Pitra, Putra Aur Dharmayuddha (Father, Son And Holy War, 1994)

Father, Son And Holy WarA twin to In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy War (1994) is less topical and more contemplative a film than its predecessor in that it attempts to study primeval and deep-rooted social issues with the bloody aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition as only the backdrop. The central thesis of the film contends that religion and mythology – whatever be their flavour – construct and propagate a skewed sense of masculinity and bravery that is predicated on violence and hatred, which deems non-violence as an impotent principle and which is only exacerbated by most of modern consumerist advertising and certain sections of the mass media. Furthermore, Patwardhan suggests, it is the same texts and practices that define femininity as whatever masculinity isn’t, with passive acceptance, chastity and servility being its prime virtues. The film argues, presenting archaeological evidence, that this was not always the case and that, at the danger of sounding too simplistic, this worship of violence and destruction – in place of fertility and proliferation – started when man learned to domesticate and own animals and settle down. Equally sweeping are its other assertions that attempt to cover of number of social phenomena (including the popularity of WWF and on-screen violence, in general), which runs the risk of decontextualizing the key argument of the film. True, that all these facets are only deeply intertwined, but the film is so ambitious and loosely structured that it almost ends up proving otherwise. These observations would find greater strength and coherence in the director’s decidedly superior work, War and Peace.

A Narmada Diary (1995)

A Narmada DiaryA very pertinent film about the social conditions in the third world – especially after the advent of globalization – A Narmada Diary (1995) sits well alongside works such as West of the Tracks (2003) and Up the Yangtze (2007) in the sense that it chooses to document on film – for us and for posterity – what would otherwise be relegated to the footnotes of most mass media. Co-directed with activist Simantini Dhuru, the film tracks the struggle of an indigenous population (Narmada Bachao Andolan/Save Narmada Movement) living on the banks of river Narmada against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which would result in their displacement and massive land submergence. There is a sense of watching history in the making as the group congregates for planning, organizes non-violent protests, confronts key officials responsible for the construction of the dam and exhibits a singular integrity of purpose, further evidencing Patwardhan’s heartfelt admiration for Patricio Guzmán’s masterpiece. Although the Save Narmada Movement is generally known to be led by Medha Patkar, Patwardhan and Dhuru avoid the pitfall of making a hero out of her and building a film around an exceptional individual’s actions. Instead, true to the spirit of this struggle, the directors present her as a key player in a movement organized and executed by the local populace en masse. Additionally, A Narmada Diary is also a personal struggle for Patwardhan as a filmmaker. Like the rebellion, his work stands as the direct antithesis to the pro-dam government propaganda films that make their appearance throughout the picture.

Jang Aur Aman (War And Peace, 2001)

War and PeaceWar and Peace (2001) could well have been titled War and Peace: Or How I Learned to Forget Gandhi and Worship the Bomb, for the major theme that runs through the film is the disjunction that exists between the past and the present and a nation’s collective (and selective) cultural amnesia with respect to its own past. Shot in four countries – India, Pakistan, Japan and the USA – and over a period of four years following the 5 nuclear tests done by India in 1998, Patwardhan’s film was slammed by Pakistan for being anti-Pakistani and by India for being anti-Indian, while the film’s barrel was always pointed elsewhere. Tracing out the country’s appalling shift from Gandhianism to Nuclear Nationalism and Pakistan’s follow-up to India’s nuclear tests, Patwardhan examines the role of the two countries as both perpetrators and victims of a major mishap that is now imminent, taking the Hiroshima-Nagasaki incident as a potent example to illustrate why nuclear armament is not merely a potentially hazardous move, but a wholly unethical one. War and Peace is a film that should exist, even if amounts to only the ticking of a radiometer amidst atomic explosions, for it calls for a realization that there can be neither a victor nor a finish point in this internecine race. It is, without doubt, Anand Patwardhan’s masterpiece. [Read full review]

[To The Children Of Swat, From The Children Of Mandala (2009)]

Sharon Lockhart

Sharon Lockhart 
(1964-)

Sharon Lockhart was born in 1964 in Norwood, Massachusetts. The American artist and filmmaker studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and at the San Francisco Art Institute. She lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown in numerous exhibitions and screenings in America, Europe and in Japan and has won many awards. Lockhart is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council. Her films NO and TEATRO AMAZONAS both screened at the Berlinale, Forum of New Cinema. In February 2006, her work, PINE FLAT, was shown at the Berlinale within the context of Forum expanded, the new platform for video art and installations, hosted by Forum and KW Institute for Contemporary Art. [Bio Courtesy: Split Film Festival, Image Courtesy: Walker Art Center]


 

Photographer and experimental filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s cinema is one that straddles multiple realms. It has been noted that her film works attempt to explore the boundary between photography and cinema. For one, most of her films are composed with a static camera and with self-conscious framing that photographs actions head on. The compositions serve to remind us that the camera’s vision is highly restricted and there’s a world that lies beyond its four edges. This is also reinforced by the numerous activities that take place off-screen in the films. Since the prime distinguishing factor between cinematography and photography is time, these works are highly conscious of their temporal dimension. While Lockhart introduces the element of time in her photography by perturbing the order in which the photographs were taken, she chooses to preserve the linearity of time in her films. Instead, she invokes the sense of passing of time by retaining the photographed image for a long time – by using overly prolonged shots of largely unchanging actions. It is perhaps best to look at her films in relation to her photographs and vice versa. Another prominent aspect of her cinematographic work is the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit. These surroundings may counterpoint (an opera house in the Amazon, a basketball court in Japan) or define (a labyrinthine industrial corridor, dusty Polish courtyards) the way of life of the people within them, but, in all cases, the kinship between the two remains of central interest.

Another dialectic that permeates Lockhart’s filmography is that between art and ethnography/anthropology – between straightforward documentation and authorial stylization. Lockhart seems to be conscious of the fact that such a tug-of-war always runs the risk of entering the territory of exploitation and unwarranted anesthetization (“I was well aware of the problems of filming in another culture and had begun to think about the way ethnographic film works within an art context.”). She overcomes this deadlock, as do other documentary filmmakers, by choreographing routines (there are dance trainers and movement advisors who work in Lockhart’s films), by making the subjects active participants in the filmmaking process and by not imposing preformed psychoanalytic notions on them. She cites Jean Rouch as a major inspiration (“I became even more fascinated with ethnographic film, especially Jean Rouch. He took ethnographic film to a whole new level. His ideas of collaboration and being a catalyst are especially interesting to me, like the way he lets his subjects choose fictional characters or roles, through which something very real comes out”). Consequently, the actions in her films are both spontaneous (the anthropological) and rigged (the aesthetic) wherein the participants both perform and behave. They are carrying out their daily tasks and, at the same time, executing the choreography they have practiced.

Goshogaoka (1998)

GoshogaokaLockhart’s debut project, Goshogaoka (1998), shot in 16mm in a basketball stadium in Japan, opens with the image of a theatre curtain, thereby setting up the motif of theatricality that pervades the rest of the film. The stillness of the image is interrupted as we witness almost two dozen high school girls in sports outfit running in and out of the frame – apparently in a circle – making the shot indicative of the cinematic system itself – the projector and the screen (In one segment, the “actors” run towards the camera, projecting themselves on us, as if mirroring the light particles that bombard the screen within the film). In fact, Goshogaoka, in its entirety, could pass of as a metaphor for filmmaking where seemingly random acts are shaped and stylized into a coherent whole (“everyday routines recontextualized and reinterpreted as dance”), where order is arrived at through disorder and where the banal moulds itself into the beautiful. The impeccably ritualized nature of the activities in the early part of the film – as one would associate with the Japanese-ness of the participants – gives way to more improvised individual tasks where the girls “perform” consciously in front of the camera, floundering at times, as if on the audience’s demand. The illusion of the work being a straightforward documentation of routines is also broken by Lockhart’s self-referential framing and utilization of off-screen space wherein we are made to acknowledge that all that we see is as much posed as it is improvised. This concept of the cinema space, by its very purpose, being a zone of contemplation would be explored further in Lockhart’s next film.

Teatro Amazonas (1999)

Teatro AmazonasTeatro Amazonas (1999) is set in the eponymous opera house in Manaus, Brazil, which one might remember from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), and consists of a single half-hour shot filmed in 35mm of a native audience listening to a piece of avant-garde music (scored by Becky Allen). As the film progresses, the voices of the audience completely overpower the vocals of the music in the same way our concentration is distracted by the length of the shot. The camera is on the stage and observes the audience head on, essentially making the film screen a portal of sorts through which cultural exchange – between two worlds, one might say – takes place. One is reminded of Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) in the way the screen additionally acts as a mirror where one audience – watching Lockhart’s experimental work – resembles the other – listening to Allen’s experimental work. Being set in South America, the reversal of the subject-audience relationship here elicits other intriguing responses from us as well. Lockhart’s camera places us on the stage, with the Native American audience staring at us, and hence manages to reverse the colonial gaze (if one makes the fairly questionable assumption that the audience is predominantly European/North American). The “colony-wise” credits at the end only compound this revisionism. In that sense, each passing minute ratchets up the tension instead of accustoming us to the new space. Although Lockhart’s films don’t possess such overt political objectives, this particular film works on such an extreme Brechtian level that such a response doesn’t seem invalid.

NŌ (2003)

NoA companion piece to Goshogaoka in a number of ways, (2003) is a highly formalist work that attempts to study the properties of the film frame with the agricultural process of mulching as the backdrop (the ethnographic aspect of the film is very subdued). The film documents two Japanese farmers (Masa and Yoko Ito) amassing heaps of hay and later spreading them out on a field. We see that farther the farmers are from the camera, the longer they take to traverse the breadth of the frame. As the amount of hay gathered decreases with decreasing distance of the workers from the frame, we realize that the geographical and representational areas of a region are in inverse proportion to each other and that the field of vision of a camera is conical rather than cubical. Although is an examination of the relation between the XY plane and the Z-axis, it also functions as a painting unfolding in time. The screen is bisected by the horizon which separates the black soil from the reddish sky. As the farmers spread the hay over the soil, they end up coloring the lower half of the frame, literally assembling it. Coupled with ambient sounds of bird chirps, is like an impressionist painting on film in which both rapidly and gradually varying hues of light are registered (A little more plot and it could pass off as Jean Renoir). In that respect, the semi-static-semi-dynamic composition of the film largely resembles those of James Benning, where, too, quick changes in landscape are pitted against microscopic ones.

Pine Flat (2006)

Pine FlatLockhart’s longest feature to date, Pine Flat (2006) is shot in the eponymous rural area in California where she apparently lived for four years. Consisting of twelve silent ten minute sketches – most of them presented through skewed compositions – all of which deal with kids and teenagers residing the locality, Pine Flat preoccupies itself with the study of cinematic time. The first six sketches deal with children who are alone and the next six with groups of teenagers and kids hanging out together. Lockhart reveals that she wanted to investigate the subjective experience of time in both these types of situations. In both cases, the kids seem to be somehow beating boredom by indulging themselves and each other (The viewer’s experience of these stretches of time also plays a part in the film’s exploration). Lockhart’s idea of disrupting chronology in her photo works translates to prolongation of the film image in this work. Consequently, the segments are reduced to their functional minimum and come across as little more than photographic – a girl reading a book, a boy playing the harmonica, a kid waiting for the school bus, a boy sleeping on the ground and so on. This return to cinematic zero (if one can approximate cinema as photography in time) is also mirrored in the implied return to zero of nature. The kids playing and carrying out their petty activities happily in the lush woods is the image of serenity itself. Alternately, this sort of persistence on mundane gestures defamiliarizes them, elevating the quotidian into the realm of art (similar to Walhol’s works) and eventually urging us to see them with fresh eyes.

Lunch Break (2008)

Lunch BreakIn Lunch Break (2008), Sharon Lockhart seems to have taken to heart the Douglas Adams quip that time is an illusion and lunchtime doubly so. Shot in Bath Iron Works, Maine during the titular break period on a typical day, the film consists of a single tracking shot through the central corridor of the factory slowed down digitally to 75 minutes (It is probably the only film I’ve seen that takes longer to see than to shoot!). The dolly moves along the Z-axis of the frame – reminiscent of Kubrick’s tracking shots in the WW1 trenches – as rusty lockers and other furniture trudge past us. The film almost entirely consists of vertical planes, straining and training our eyes to such an extent that we start recognizing the minutest of lateral movements that the camera undergoes. Beyond a point, our eyes start playing tricks on us. If we concentrate at the centre of the image, the edges seem to melt away and the camera seems to move pretty fast and if we choose to pay attention to the edges, the camera seems slower than ever (an illusion that might be very useful in genre filmmaking). At times, when there are only machines in our view, we are not sure if we are witnessing a tracking shot within a real space or a zoom into a photograph (The one Lockhart film that most resembles Wavelength (1967) is this). It is only when the humans enter the frame that we have reference for the camera’s motion. Likewise, it is only during the lunch break that the human elements, for once, triumph over their mechanical counterparts, which continue to drone even during this cherished recess time.

Exit (2008)

ExitOver a 110 years after the Lumiére brothers photographed workers coming out of a factory, Sharon Lockhart embarks on a similar project, attempting to chronicle workers exiting a factory – Bath Iron Works again – over a time span of five days. Unlike in the earlier film, we don’t get to see the worker’s faces. Only a few of them even seem to notice the presence of a camera. Over the week, we see a number of workers walking into the frame, moving away from the camera and vanishing at a point near the centre. There is no strict pattern – in attendance, in attire or in mood – that is evident as we move from Monday to Friday. No insight into the psychology of the workers is given either. Instead we are left to speculate about the contents of the lunch boxes (which had made their debut in Lunch Break) and back packs (which many seem to be carrying), about the kind of work these workers are doing (not all seem to be involved in physical labor) and about the time of the day and season of the year (given the changes in the intensity of natural light). It’s kind of like guessing the contents of those mysterious trains in RR (2007). A man stops to chat with another. We barely hear their voices and are left wondering about the poetry of their lives. One striking thing that is evident is that the majority of the workers are wearing denim. This might give us an insight into the taste and economic standing of these people, but it is also suggestive of mass production of commodities, discrediting of human skill and homogenization of culture.

Podwórka (2009)

PodworkaPodwórka (2009) is shot in Lodz, Poland and consists of six sketches depicting the kids of the neighbourhood playing with each other in the courtyards of the city. A miniature version of sorts of Pine Flat, this film, too, presents a string of vignettes from the lives of children of a particular city. But, unlike Lockhart’s earlier film which shot the kids from at eye level and from a close distance, the kids here are photographed with a detached perspective and in long shots as if integrating them with their environment. This, in effect, presents them as human elements maneuvering through industrial landscapes which are – a la Lunch Break – marked by rusted pipes and seemingly defunct structures. Like Pine Flat, Podwórka attempts to study a locality by viewing it from different angles and through different people and to synthesize a version of the region that stays true to the filmmaker’s experience of it (although I don’t understand the geo-specificity of Poland for this project) – as if trying to hold on to the fleeting memories of childhood, which is influenced only too deeply by one’s environment. If it was the green trees in Pine Flat, it is Lodz’s mellowed courtyards that seem to be engulfing the children in Podwórka. The soiled, dilapidated walls of the neighbourhood seem to be of no bother to the kids, who are gleefully engaged in playing with mud, bicycles, footballs and the surrounding buildings. In that sense, one could say that the film is, as is Weerasethakul’s debut feature, a paean to dead times of the afternoon and to the power of human imagination.

 

(You can watch two of Lockhart’s films here)

 

(Continued from Part 1)

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort ApacheFort Apache (1948), first of the director’s cavalry trilogy, marks a stark shift in tone and attitude for Ford. It is from this film onwards that Ford’s view of the west becomes progressively unromantic. For one, the central protagonist, Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), is gradually alienated from us. His actions seem increasingly misguided and the only force of sanity comes in the form of captain York (John Wayne) who acts as our mouthpiece in the film. Colonel Thursday is a prisoner of his own position in the army. He’s the first of Ford’s many men to show loyalty to external ideologies than to his conscience (“Tell them they’re not talking to me, but to the United States government” says Thursday). These men abandon what is essentially human for some vaguely defined concepts of glory and martyrdom (One can imagine how much Ford would have admired Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece). These are also invariably the men who believe in establishing hierarchies and locking people into rigidly defined categories that could systematically be manipulated and deployed (Ford’s reaction to such men would move from fascination to ambivalence to utter contempt, as is evident in his last Western). Consequently, the film, like most of Ford’s subsequent works, is full of petty rituals – ball room dances (compare this mechanical waltz with the divine dance sequence in The Grapes of Wrath), coldly worded field orders, automated salutations and bookish sentences. Ford would take a decade and a half to convert the cynicism of this film to a monumental tragedy.

3 Godfathers (1948)

3 GodfathersTo borrow Manny Farber’s terminology, 3 Godfathers (1948) is a very powerful termite that gradually grows into a giant white elephant (Compare John Wayne’s blue moon laughter in the first scene with his laboured theatrics towards the end). Yet another remake of a story filmed multiple times before, 3 Godfathers is the kind of movie that can pass off as a Sunday school lesson. Technically, Ford is at the top of his game here, walking through the film with ease, conjuring up one larger-than-life image after the other. But the film feels more like a showcase of Ford’s directorial skills than a coherent work driven by a vision. One also gets the feeling that Ford made this film more as an obligation and as a tribute to his one-time collaborator Harry Carey Sr. who starred in the film Three Godfathers (1916), which Ford himself remade three years later. Hence, the film seems more like a launching vehicle for Harry Carey Jr. that Ford was able to slip in between his cavalry trilogy. Complaints aside, it should also be noted how Ford manages to leave his fingerprints all over the film. At least, the first half hour is a complete throwback to Ford’s prewar Westerns. Glorious landscapes all over and even more glorious men cutting through them, mutually respecting lawmen and bandits of very high moral standards and the psychological tug-of-war they indulge in – one would think that the film just can’t go wrong from here. Sadly, it does. The last half hour is Ford sleepwalking though his material.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore A Yellow RibbonShe Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the best film in the director’s cavalry trilogy and, with the probable exception of The Quiet Man (1952), has to be his most personal work as well. Here we have John Wayne playing the old Captain Brittles, who’s just about John Ford’s age, ready to retire from the army in a few days. Like Ford, he’s a man who throws his weight around just to show how rough and demanding he is and within, he is a child. He’s like Colonel Thursday of Fort Apache on the outside (“I’m ordering you to volunteer” he says – a phrase that would recur in Ford’s later films) and Colonel Marlowe of The Horse Soldiers on the inside. Like Kane of High Noon (1952), he’s a man who feels responsible for the lives of his men even though he’ll become a complete stranger to them in a few hours. Moreover, the film is also about ageing, about giving up one’s game. Captain Brittles is a man who’s seen enough bloodshed in his life. His fervent wish is to save his men from sure death rather than to achieve glory or exhibit heroism (“Old men should stop wars” he says to the old Indian chief who wants to stay indifferent). One can’t help but think Ford might have intended this film to be a swansong of some sort. The most significant scenes in the film are shot at (artificial, accentuated) twilight that so directly registers the dread of being left alone. Brittles speaking to his deceased wife at her grave might be more than a sign of affection. It might be of desperation.

Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GrandeThe extremely eloquent and moving Rio Grande (1950) is evidently a thematic extension of the previous couple of films in the trilogy. If professional authority blinded Colonel Thursday of conscience and protected Captain Brittles from baring it, it prevents Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne, perhaps reprising his role from Fort Apache) from bonding with his son. But there is also a sense of inevitability that permeates Rio Grande. Colonel York burns down his wife’s nursery as a part of his duty and pays the price for it. He also stays aloof from his son for he is his supervising officer. He keeps demoralizing his son and tries to siphon off any pride that the boy may have in his new profession. The question here is if one could really break such a barrier, giving in to emotionality or humanism. This idea of free will being overridden by man-made hierarchies echoes throughout in the film. Soldiers exhibit comradeship and honor among themselves whereas they stand stiff and unresponsive while dealing with higher officials (“I refuse to answer sir… respectfully” goes the reply, as it would elsewhere in Ford’s films). Rio Grande is gloriously lit and photographed and each of its images looks like a painting, a moment frozen in time. In this film too, it appears as if Ford is expressing something that is utmost personal in purely generic terms. And Wayne brings such honesty to the character that, when he comes in all white, for once, with a bouquet in his hand, you wish the film ends right there.

Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon MasterWagon Master is what one might call a “minor Ford” (shot in black and white with no stars), but that doesn’t do any justice to this superb Western. Less a story and more a journey, the film follows a pair of ranchers (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who agree to escort a community of Mormons on their way to establish a new settlement. The crew on the road entirely consists of people relegated to live on the fringes of the society, the latter being just an arbitrary, prejudiced crowd anyway in most of Ford’s westerns. Ford’s most optimistic film, Wagon Master can be seen as the director’s vision of an ideal West – a place where all races and religions can coexist peacefully, a place where real joy comes from not amassing wealth, but by building a healthy and closely-knit community and a place where the only gold to be found is in the fertility of the soil. Ford counterpoints this vision of utopia by introducing the Cleggs family (which is sort of carried over from My Darling Clementine) that embodies everything that is lamentable about the frontier – racism, hooliganism and intolerance. Watching Wagon Master, one gets the feeling that Ford would have made some very great films (as if he hasn’t already!) had he taken to documentaries. Ford builds the film upon moments of commonplace magic, dwelling considerably on the everyday activities of the Mormons and upon shots of people travelling, moving ahead against nature’s odds and exhibiting a sheer desire to live.

The Searchers (1956)

Everything significant about The Searchers (1956) is off-screen, in its untold passages, unfilmed spaces and undiscussed possibilities. It is as if Ford was commenting upon the genre, and on his own brand of cinema, without ever breaking it down, as if he was repudiating the racist falsities hitherto bestowed upon the Indians by showing how much the white community shares those traits with them and as if normalizing the “demonic” acts of the Natives by presenting them as justified if done by the whites. The Searchers is a film with a mass of unresolvable tensions at the core, each of which threatens to take the film apart. “He’s got to kill me”, says Ethan (John Wayne) about Scar (Henry Brandon). He knows as much about Scar as he does about himself. What are Scar and Ethan are but the same person born on either side of the frontier? Both are old timers who prefer revenge over justice and who believe that each of them has complete justification to kill the other. When they look at each other in the eye, what they are staring at is, in fact, the abyss within each of them. It’s not just Ethan and Martin who are the titular searchers, it is Scar too. That’s why The Searchers is, at heart, a tragedy. Somehow, Ethan seems to know his condition and that his choice of an artificial racist ideology over his conscience (unlike Martin) has done him more harm than good. Consequently, the journey, like the film itself, becomes a quest to define, once and for all, what Ethan is.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse SoldiersThe Horse Soldiers (1959) is set during the American Civil War and unfolds primarily from the point of view of Colonel Marlowe (John Wayne), an officer in the union army who plans to blow up a key railway line to disrupt supplies to the Confederate forces. Locating the story within civil war helps Ford to comment on the war without taking sides, unlike the earlier films. Also in Colonel Marlowe’s cavalry is surgeon Kendall (William Holden), whose mere presence irritates Marlowe to no end, and a prisoner Miss Hunter (Constance Towers). As in My Darling Clementine, the Fordian male bonding is between a doctor and an army man. Hunter sees the doctor’s profession as one that saves lives and the army man’s as one that kills. Marlowe, on the other hand, considers doctors as parasites who want people to be sick and, perhaps, his kind as those who want then to be healthy. It is only towards the end of the film that Marlowe comes to realize that his grief of losing his wife after a failed operation is no more sorrowful than the doctor’s angst of not being able to save a patient who has come to him for help. This sense of empathizing with the ‘other’ forms the backbone of the morally complex work that is The Horse Soldiers. When the confederate army is, actually, made of school kids and old men, it’s hard not to see the futility of a war that is fought just for the sake of wiping out one side.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Sergeant RutledgeIf The Horse Soldiers was Ford empathizing with the Tories and Cheyenne Autumn would be him empathizing with the Native Americans, Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is Ford making amends for the under-representation of the African-Americans in his Westerns (This near total absence of African-Americans is startling given that Ford has made more than one film dealing with the Civil War). Basically a courtroom drama uniformed as a Western, but also historically particularized, Sergeant Rutledge is Ford tackling the issue of racism head on. The film unfolds piecewise, moving from one incomplete perspective to another while keeping the truth at an arm’s distance, so that the audience is never completely allowed to vindicate and sympathize with protagonist Rutledge (Woody Strode, ironically given the 4th place in the title credits!). It is interesting to imagine how the audience would have reacted to this kind of a narrative structure in the pre-PC era in which the film was made, especially given that the central drama involves a young black man and a white adolescent woman – arguably the most scandalizing combination of them all. Despite the fact that the film has some pointed writing (“What does it all add up to, sir?” Rutledge asks an edgy Tom Cantrell (Jeffery Hunter), who is not entirely free of racial prejudices and acts himself as one might be led to believe, coldly exposing the latter’s disbelief in him), Sergeant Rutledge suffers from Ford’s heavy-handed direction. Ford attempts earnestly to develop a mythical African-American hero in Rutledge, but the effort seems more like calculated posturing than genuine legend building.

Two Rode Together (1961)

Two Rode TogetherTwo Rode Together (1961) could be seen as an unequivocally liberalist reworking of The Searchers that resolves the irreconcilable tensions of the earlier film and takes a clear cut political stand. One could say that this is the film The Searchers would have been had there been no man called Ethan Edwards. Ford makes this clear by resorting to a plot that resembles that of the previous work (There is much intertextuality in the film, with characters, actors and lines being directly borrowed from the previous film) and commenting very strongly on the racist tendency espoused by some people of the white community at the frontier. A white boy who was captured and raised by Indians is traded back for some weapons by corrupt antihero sheriff Guthrie “Guth” MacCabe (James Stewart). The white community is asked to identify the boy and claim him back. The scenario has all the uneasy trappings of a slave market and that may just be the point of the film. And the sharp character arc that Guthrie undergoes could well apply for the whole of Ford’s cinema. Despite its occasional flourishes of melodrama, there is much left unanswered in the film and its take on mob mentality, fear of miscegenation and domestic racism leaves one very agitated. And yes, Two Rode Together has the greatest dialogues in all of Ford’s Westerns that are delivered with such panache that the film feels almost Hawksian. The conversation between Stewart and Widmark at the riverbank, spanning several minutes, is a sheer joy to watch.

How The West Was Won (1962)

How The West Was WonAn omnibus film directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall and starring just about every living actor that you would associate with Westerns, How The West Was Won (1962) is the kind of film that cries out: “Look at me. I’m epic. Worship me”. Indeed. Made for Cinerama and shot in such spectacular fashion (that it might have well set the trend for present day epic cinema), I can imagine how viscerally enthralling it would have been to see it in its original projection. John Ford apparently directed the segment on civil war that comes halfway into the film. With the trappings of an episode from late Kurosawa, Ford’s segment is an uninspired piece of filmmaking starring John Wayne, who could easily have been replaced by a John Wayne impersonator here. The film, likewise, could have been titled “How the Western Was Won” for the work seems more like a reverent pastiche of great Westerns through the ages than a conglomeration of myths about the Wild West. Conservative to the point of being laughable (and this might have really turned off Ford, given the kind of films he was making at that time), the film has two well made segments that hold it together. The first is the charming interlude involving Gregory Peck and Debbie Raynolds which is actually a romance dressed up as a Western. The second redeeming section is the strikingly directed final half hour, which plays out in a High Noon-esque, traditional fashion that infuses the film with a spirit that is missing in the first two hours.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe proper place for John Ford’s greatest Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), is not among Ford’s other westerns but among films like The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Ordet (1955) and Winter Light (1962), for it is a spiritual work of the highest order. By the time the film ends, you almost get the feeling that all that you saw was a pair of eyes piercing the pristine screen. In the film, Ford examines what essentially comprise the soul the Western – Law and Morality – through three different embodiments of these entities – the good legal Ransom (James Stewart), the bad illegal Valance (Lee Marvin) and the good illegal Doniphon (John Wayne, a Farber termite, delivers the performance of a lifetime). The Fordian dialectic between tradition and modernity is at its most intense here, with Ransom’s civilization making way for Doniphon’s way of the gun. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a textbook for genre filmmakers on how to light, stage, shoot and cut a film. Every second of the film, you feel you are there, in the midst of the action, living with the characters. The film is like a stretched rubber band, ready to snap any moment, with every character pulling the film’s moral center towards himself/herself. A tragedy of monumental proportions (It is from this film that The Dark Knight (2008) borrows heavily from), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps the one film that Ford should be remembered by. “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend” says a newsman in the film. His voice might just be of John Ford.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn (1964) has widely been labeled as Ford’s official apology letter to the Native Americans for having usually cast them as bloodthirsty savages. If one follows all of Ford’s Westerns from The Searchers onwards, one would see that the film is also a logical conclusion of a trajectory. Cheyenne Autumn is a highly liberalist film, but it does not present a primitivist’s view of the Native Americans. Sure, it portrays them as a proud and peace-loving race, but Ford is more interested in treating them as a group of individuals who may or may not conform to stereotypes and perceived cultural truisms (“He is your blood, but he is not you” says the new clan leader). Actually, Ford endorses individualism more than ever in this film. He underscores the need for individual decision making and the need to act according to conscience. Elegiac in tone, as if mourning national and cinematic mistakes of the past, the film is almost entirely defined by its harsh, godforsaken landscapes. The central comical segment with Stewart as Earp should be disregarded for that’s how the director’s cut of this film would have turned out to be, even if it serves both as a throwback to pre-war Ford and as a hilarious critique of the racist tendency commonplace at the frontier townships. From Americans hiding in a hut from an Indian onslaught in Straight Shooting to Indians being imprisoned in a barn by the Americans in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s Westerns, spanning nearly half a century, seal the filmmaker’s position as a chronicler of both the history of America and the history of American cinema. Rife with, well, Fordian compositions, Cheyenne Autumn is a fitting, if not the ideal, farewell to Westerns for Ford and to Ford for Westerns.

Directed by John Ford

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